The Bulls with Monday’s spectacular 122-75 victory over the Orlando Magic now face one of the best moments in sports.
Six months of work, both function and dysfunction; travel, turmoil and tenacity. Controversy, condemnation and conquest. And now it all leads to one game, 48 minutes of basketball to mark a season as a success or failure.
A one-game tournament.
April Angst? April Anxiety? April Apoplexy?
If the Bulls beat the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday, they qualify for the NBA’s post season tournament, a chance, however unlikely, to make this a season of glory. If the Bulls lose and the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers win, the Bulls miss the playoffs and who knows the fate of everyone and anyone on the roster with a second consecutive playoff failure.
It’s a chance to start the season again at the best time of the basketball year. Or just be considered one of those losers. One game, one win, is all it takes to effectively save a season. What delicious drama.
“Coming into the season the goal is to make the playoffs,” noted Dwyane Wade. “That’s what our goal continues to be through it all, playing well, playing bad, whatever the heck was going on. You want to put yourself in position to make the playoffs and then a whole other season starts. What you want is to be able to control your destiny; that’s what we have the ability to do. We don’t win the game (Wednesday), then we don’t deserve to be in. Simple as that.”
The scenarios are not so simple with the Indiana Pacers 41-40 in seventh in the Eastern Conference and the Bulls and Heat following at 40-41. One team misses. If the three tie, the Bulls qualify by having the winning record against the other two in that three-way tiebreaker. Miami has the tiebreaker head to head with Indiana. The Pacers are home against Atlanta Wednesday. The Heat is home against Washington. So there are possibilities for any of the three to make or miss the playoffs.
It’s simple for the Bulls: Beat Brooklyn, the team with the NBA’s poorest record, at home and get to seventh or eighth in the conference. Lose and it could mean ninth. Of course, that’s also the Brooklyn team that erased two nine-point Bulls fourth quarter leads Saturday to beat the Bulls in Brooklyn, the Nets team that outhustled and outclassed a Bulls team that likely could have eased into the playoffs with that win.
When George Washington was chased out of Brooklyn by the British in his worst loss of the Revolutionary War, it seemed more competitive than the Bulls in Brooklyn.
So being at home, and playing a team that is 20-61, is hardly a sure thing for this Bulls team. A Bulls team, by the way, that has a better record against winning teams this season than it does against losing teams.
“Tonight was a good game for everyone to be involved and feel good about themselves,” said Wade. ” We took care of business, beat a team we’re supposed to beat on our home floor. We look forward to playing the team again that stole a game from us a couple days ago.”
That’s what you really call One or Done.
The Bulls got in position for the 82-games-wrapped-into-one finale with their most dominant game of the season, the third biggest winning margin in franchise history, a wall to wall, end to end effort that makes you wonder why this occurs so infrequently.
The Bulls had six players score in double figures led by Robin Lopez with 18 points. Jimmy Butler had 17 and Jerian Grant, playing for the injured Rajon Rondo, had his first career double/double and a career high assists with 17 points and 11 assists. Nikola Mirotic had 16 points with three of six three pointers, Wade added 13 points and Bobby Portis had 10.
It wasn’t so much an offensive celebration as it was a gala of grit. The Bulls snatched defensive rebounds instead of, as they often do, admire them. They had their hands on every pass, tipping and deflecting balls. They scrambled out to run Magic players off the three-point line, forcing extra passes and then denying the shot or drive. It was a pot pourri of purpose often not seen. We’d see it occasionally, in spurts; there was some sense it was there, but rarely for 48 minutes of basketball.
Yet, there it was Monday in a game the Bulls also had to win to remain in contention, and against that Magic team that ran them out last month in Orlando.
This was as complete a game as the Bulls have displayed in years, leading 14-2 in the first few minutes and quickly ahead by more than 20 points before the end of the first quarter. The lead was 30 before the end of the second quarter—64-37 at halftime—and then into the 40s in the fourth as the Bulls kept building and pummeling.
“We were really sharing the ball,” said Grant. “Guys were knocking down shots and playing unselfishly; we kind of played like we were having fun out there.”
Fun on the basketball court? The Bulls? How about that. The way it should be.
Portis finished a tough tipin and flexed his muscles. The reserves on the bench were up and dancing. Lessons are being scheduled. Lopez was fading back with arms extended when Mirotic launched threes. Butler finished three consecutive dunks, two on lob passes from Mirotic and Lopez and one on a full court pass from Mirotic. There was no cure for this passing virus.
The Bulls had 56 points in the paint driving the Magic to dejection, a 54-37 rebounding margin, 33 assists on 48 baskets, 46 percent on threes, forcing 17 turnovers for 22 points with 14 fast break points. It was the worst losing margin in Orlando franchise history. They offered Mickey a blindfold at Disneyworld.
Now if only the Bulls can beat Brooklyn.
“It better (carry over to Wednesday),” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It’s a (Nets) team, obviously, we’re playing that is playing its best ball of the season. They had a single-digit game at Boston tonight (losing) and obviously we have the memory of playing them just a couple of days ago. They jumped on us early, getting us down double digits. We have to have the same focus.”
Or be beaten by Spencer Dinwiddie again.
It’s a Nets team so bereft of top players and draft picks from ill-conceived trades that it features a roster filled with guys released multiple times and trying to save careers. So they play hard and tough and relentless, like their jobs are at stake, which they are. Orlando is 28-53, but most of their guys have guaranteed contracts. See you next season. You know their huddle chant: “One, two, three, Cancun.” The Nets are coming at you.
OK, but this is a Bulls team with championship veterans, though Rondo remains uncertain for Wednesday. Grant is playing the best ball of his career starting for Rondo, averaging 15.7 points and seven assists the last three games. Wade has gotten in two games in since his return from an elbow fracture and is looking sharper and more effective.
Butler continues to do everything, and well.
“It’s been in our hands this entire season,” said Butler. “Right now we have to have this game; we all know it. I know it, ya’ll know it. Now it’s about going out there and getting it done. No matter how it looks at the end of the game, we have to have more points than the Nets. I just want everybody to lock in going into the game. We’re not counting on anyone else; we control our own destiny. Win the game.”
Lopez is coming off outscoring his twin brother for the first time in his career and playing with uncompromising passion. He made nine of 14 shots on a variety of hooks and helter skelter moves. Lopez had a plus-31 mark in the game. Cristiano Felicio got back into the mix as his backup and was effective on the boards again and Portis was both wide eyed and wild eyed.
“If we come out with defensive energy like we did tonight, generally we are a pretty good team,” said Hoiberg. “Had a lot of deflections in the first half and that led to some good run out baskets, transition points. Proud of Niko for bouncing back with a really efficient game. But you can’t be happy and satisfied with it. You have to go out with the same mentality, be really focused.”
Heard that one before.
Now it’s just one time. Not that this season will be viewed as a great success by making the playoffs, but the stench of failure will be too great given the opportunity. It’s a chance to get back to .500, which was above the preseason predictions of many. It’s an opportunity to provide the young players with a dose of that playoff pressure cooker that cannot be explained. It’s a chance to start going out relaxed and certain; sort of with basketball house money. Few believed they could even be there. So just play. What an opportunity.
There’s no way of predicting a potential matchup with the Cavaliers, now in second, resting their top players despite all the playoff implications. Though that’s too far away. After all, they clinched maybe two months ago what the Bulls still are trying to assure themselves. The Bulls are in no position to sniff at anyone the way they’ve played this season. But they can claim redemption in one game.>/p>
“I know those (Miami) guys are going to play their heart out,” said Wade of the team he played for the previous 13 seasons. “I don’t expect them to lose. We can’t worry about them. We’ve got to come out with the mentality that they’re going to win. We’ve got to win our game. I’ve played in a lot of games, but I don’t know when I played in a must win to go to the playoffs. Win we continue; lose and have exit meetings.”